Three Arabian Tales
Harked With Little Ears
Children love stories and ask, with innocent curiosity, questions, which adults can seldom answer. As a schoolboy, my mind teemed with beehives of questions, which when I asked, earned me risible rebuke. During the early nineteen-fifties, teachers and parents were a lot less tolerant of children’s incessant inquisitiveness.
“Stop asking senseless questions,” snapped my aunt.
“I have no time for silliness,” sighed my mother. “Ask me something intelligent instead, something that I can answer.”
“Stick to your schoolwork,” admonished my teachers, “and stop flapping all over the classroom with your imagination.”
My Three Arabian Tales transpired before 1954, before I turned eight, and before I knew to feel intimidated by adult company. During those formative years, my father worked in Saudi Arabia and came home once a year, loaded with Bedouin stories and anecdotes, which, sitting among adults, I listened to with buoyant fascination. During that juvenile stretch of life, I perceived the adults who audienced my father as merely big people—big people who laughed loud, smoked cigarettes, sat too long after meals sipping coffee, and entertained themselves with convoluted conversations instead of colorful toys.
Of all the conversations I sat through as a little boy, my father’s were the most memorable because he was a gifted storyteller. He could turn a simple incident into an anecdote, a fool’s remark into a profound message, a chance encounter into a propitious omen, and an unpleasant event into a divine intervention sent to avert a lurking evil. He embellished, I am certain, as all story tellers do, for the object of telling stories is to entertain rather than to render the desiccated truth. As Dostoyevsky once said, “We must embellish the truth to make it believable.”
At that nascent stage of my life, I half understood what he said and left the other half to wander aimlessly in my elephant memory. With relentless curiosity, and in spite of ridicule and rebuke, I continued, unabashed, to intercept those abstruse, adult conversations. Something about unraveling what adults were saying challenged me. I kept those unintelligible conversation snippets in the tenebrous recesses of my mind, holding them hostage until that time, when as an adult, I would be able to decipher their arcane remains. And it is from this latent, childhood memory of mine that now, sixty-two years later, I have re-composed these tales.
When my father related the story of an Arabian poet who, watching a caravan from atop his horse, regaled, with an impromptu verse, a veiled princess as she passed him on her camel:
With the light from your eyes
I shall light my fire.
When they heard this couplet, all the adults in the room cooed with enchantment. I, on the other hand, unable to restrain my curiosity, asked with a bleating voice, “So? Did he really light his fire from her eyes?”
Instead of an answer, a hum of polite laughter fluttered about the room, which further teased my mind and left, insatiate, my inquisitiveness. And, as my father continued with his story, my growing incomprehension continued to feed my fascination.
In those days, he explained, flirting with a princess could have earned that meddlesome poet a swift beheading. The princess, however, noting the curved scimitars gleaming out of her guards’ scabbards, stopped the caravan with a swift wave of her hand.
“Re-sheath your scimitars,” she commanded her retinue with a cold, piercing voice. And then, turning toward them, she recited:
Poets, when inspired, turn officious
That is why our Prophet disliked poets.
In spite the chagrin of her enraged guards, she then turned toward the poet and added:
You cannot see my eyes through this dark veil
What demons conjured your curt flamboyance?
Unperturbed by the princess’s fuming guards, but utterly enthralled by her poetic extempore, he cadenced back, holding the same meter:
Imagination sees deeper than eyes
Nothing can stop excursions of the mind.
Hearing that, the princess ordered her entire retinue to turn away and then, facing the poet, lifted up her veil for one brief moment and titillated:
Behold my unveiled face and thrill your sight
Then, with a poem, fire up the night.
The room rang with poetry as the strophes were reiterated like a song’s refrain, enthralling everyone except me. I sat wandering what that poetry meant and what happened at the end, but no denouement was revealed. Over the years, I have dreamed up so many ends to that story but none of them healed my wounded curiosity. A story without an end is like a wound that does not heal.
When my father told the story about the first King of Saudi Arabia, the room choked on golden silence, unblinking eyes went dry, cigarettes grew long ashes, and a cloud of wonder hovered like a halo in midair:
When, after the Second Great War, King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud was invited by the young Queen Elizabeth to a royal banquet at Buckingham Palace, the world watched with keen interest, began my father. The table, set with strict royal etiquette, glimmered like the Milky Way on a dark desert night. Seats were arranged according to rank and the King presided at one head of that very long table, opposite the Queen. Alcohol, a traditional accouterment in royal banquets, was omitted out of respect for the King’s Muslim faith.
The Bedouin King, who had been expertly coached in the formalities of royal manners for that special occasion, comported himself with regal grace, initiating each course with slow, small, calculated bites, and gaining the admiration of all the blonde, powdered faces, scrutinizing him. When, at last, the food was cleared and the grapes were brought in, little golden bowls filled with cool water were placed before the King, the Queen, and the rest of the invitees for the purpose of dipping the grapes before mouthing them.
The King, desert-born and reared where there was little water to spare, through some unfortunate faux pas, had not been coached in the particular nuances of the golden bowl use. Naturally, he perceived the glittering bowl of cool, clear, water as a God-sent gift. While the rest of the table, including the Queen, eyed the King, awaiting his first move, reverently, he lifted the golden bowl to his lips, and with sibilant mirth, emptied its lucent contents into his desert mouth.
The table froze. The invitees struggled to recompose their faces. The King licked his lips with succulent insouciance. The Queen, with a pallid smile and a feigned cough, quickly held everyone’s attention. Then, with musical grace and royal dignity, she lifted her own bowl to her still smiling lips and slowly savored its entire contents.
Seconds thudded like drums, eyes vacillated in their sockets, and all breathing ceased. The Queen gently laid her emptied bowl down and, with a tacit tilt of her crowned head, ushered the invitees who, in unison, lifted up their bowls and drank them to the lees.
Hearing that story, the listeners burst the room with loud, exclamatory acclaim followed by flaps of laughter, as if a flock of birds had been abruptly startled into flight. Then, after the roars had died and the silence of astonishment supervened, the group, with amused eyes, beckoned my father for one, final, summary remark. Seizing that moment’s lull, I inquired, “Do golden bowls make water taste better?”
Murmuring smiles lit the smoke-filled room, but neither comment nor explanation was offered to fill my gaps.
It would take another time and place for the apricot incident to be related. My father returned to his hospital in Jeddah, gone for yet another year. When he came back the next fall, I was as eager to spend as much time listening to his stories as were so many of his friends. Being a year older made me feel more confident, but also more inquisitive. Again, it happened after lunch, during one, long, coffee-sipping, cigarette-smoking, October afternoon.
Dropped by the school bus at the head of our dead-end street, I walked home and rang the doorbell. The living room was foggy with cigarette-smoking adults, listening attentively to my father discourse on the upcoming elections, for he was both surgeon and politician. He saddled me onto his knee, and went on with his exposition, of which I understood nothing.
Then, again, the doorbell rang and in stepped a tall man from Akkar—a fertile mountain region famed for its fruits—bearing a gift of dried apricots.
“Mr. Bitar,” chimed my father, standing up and giving the man a huge hug. Then, turning to the guests, he added, “This nice man sent me a case of fresh apricots all the way to Jeddah. His son, who works at our hospital, brought it with him in mid August.”
After the customary handshakes, which dominoed around the room, and after the man was seated, handed a demitasse of Arabic coffee, and offered a cigarette from the cigarette tray, my father saddled me back onto his knee and began his apricot story with this prologue:
I love Bedouins, he began, and I love their Saharan wisdom. For millennia they have survived the Arabian Desert and have thrived in spite of intolerable conditions, vast emptiness, and scarce water. From their Arabian Peninsula, they have spawned a magnificent language with inimitable literature, founded a formidable religion, and carved a vast empire.
Of all the Sahara’s nomadic tribes, many of whose members I’ve come to know as patients, not one has accepted the government’s invitation to urbanize. They prefer the arid, serenity of the desert to the boisterous, obtrusiveness of the city. The Red Sea is their bathtub and the sand, their master bedroom. From them, among other things, I have learned endurance, cheerfulness, insouciance, contentment, patience, simplicity, and joie de vivre.
One day, in the heat of August, I came to lunch after a long, operating schedule. As I sat down, my nurse came in to tell me that a Sheikh Hussein from an inland tribe had travelled several days on camelback to see me. I asked her to usher him in and invited him to share my lunch, which he declined by placing his hand upon his chest and uttering a polite thank you. Then, sitting across the table, he told me of his medical problems, and I agreed to examine him right after lunch. After the food was removed, the cook, with a sly smile, came in with a bowl of cold, perspiring apricots, which he placed before me.
“Mr. Bitar brought them with him from Lebanon last night,” he announced, relishing my surprised face.
Sheikh Hussein studied the fruits with delectable curiosity. To a Bedouin, the cold, succulent, red-and-yellow cheeks of those plump, Lebanese apricots must have flaunted a tantalizing spectacle because he couldn’t stop eyeing them. Even in the plush souks of Jeddah, apricots were a rarity because they travel poorly and have a short shelf life. Noting his covetous curiosity, I invited him to try some.
“What are they?” he asked, from a parched throat.
“They come from Lebanon. They arrived last night.” I encouraged, and then pushed the bowel toward him.
He hesitated. Then, with two, long, sand-blown fingers, he picked up one and, very carefully, put it in his mouth.
“There’s a seed inside,” I cautioned, as he began to chew.
A smile rose into his eyes as he spit the seed into his hand, reached for another, and another, and another, consuming the fruits with dizzy enchantment. A thrill shivered through my bones as I watched his mouth, savoring one apricot at a time with profound, sumptuous reflection. And when he stopped, it was not because of satiety, but rather because of propriety, for he had eaten about half a dozen by then.
All this time, I said nothing, but watched with a hospitable smile the son-of-the-desert compose himself, put the apricot seeds into his djellaba’s pocket, wipe his bearded mouth with his sun-parched hand, take in a deep sigh, and then utter with Koranic solemnity his culinary epiphany.
“Doctor,” he proclaimed, pointing at the apricots with his long, trembling, index finger. “They say that the bath is heaven upon earth. For the fear of Allah, is this the bath?”
In Lebanon, as in the rest of the Levant, fathers often worked abroad, in the oil-rich countries, and saw their families only once or twice a year. Having private time with my father was rare. I learned to share him with endless visitors and, in spite of such cultural incursions, I managed to derive great satisfaction from his stories. As an adult, when I think of my father, I hear his stories, and it is these stories that keep aglow, my memories of him.
As Nassim Taleb said in The Black Swan, “Ideas come and go; stories stay.”
Stories told of yesteryears
Come to us through little ears
Hold us captive in their spheres.
When the years will disappear
Only stories keep them near
For our little ears to hear.
From: Both Banks Of Life / Available: Amazon.com
Arabian Tales (Heard With Little Ears), Al-Jadid, Vol.19, No.68 (2015) Pages 36-37.